CRIMES OF THE HEART
CRIMES OF THE HEART, Imperial Artistry, in association with Red Line Productions, presented by Shaw & Partners Wealth Management at the Old Fitz, 15 March-8 April 2017. Photography by Rupert Reid, above - Laura Pike, Amanda McGregor and Amy Usherwood; below - Renae Small and Caleb Alloway
When Beth Henley won the Pulitzer Prize for this play in 1978, she was just 30. The same age as Lenny MaGrath (Laura Pike) the eldest of the three sisters who are the focus of Crimes of the Heart. Henley was also one of several sisters and like Lenny, Meg (Amanda McGregor) and Becky aka Babe (Renae Small) she was born and raised in the Deep South – Jackson, Mississippi.
The South isn’t only the setting for the play – in this instance Hazelhurst, a small Mississippi town – it’s also the essence of the place and people and their language, all of which are beautifully captured in director Janine Watson’s fine production.
Some years ago, movie critic Roger Ebert wrote of the big screen adaptation: “Crimes of the Heart is that most delicate of undertakings: a comedy about serious matters. It exists somewhere between parody and melodrama, between the tragic and the goofy. There are moments when the movie doesn't seem to know where it's going, but for once that's a good thing because the uncertainty almost always ends with some kind of a delightful, weird surprise.”
That description is accurate and hard to improve upon. The sisters live in a home of comforting ordinariness (their lemon-lipped cousin Chick (Amy Usherwood) is next door) where the baking of pound cakes, the squeezing of fresh lemonade and the instantly offered bottle of Coke are the norm. But the norm is a wildly skewed one.
The sisters are gathering in the family home because Babe has shot her husband, failed to kill him and needs a lawyer and support. Before they arrive however Lenny is alone and lonely and sings “Happy birthday to me...” over a candle stuck in a cookie. Meg arrives from her glamorous life and singing career in Hollywood aboard the Greyhound bus and her fantasy quickly crumbles like Lenny’s cookie. And their grandfather has had a stroke and is in hospital and a coma.
On the periphery are Doc (Rowan Davie), a quasi-medic and once Meg’s beau, and Barnett (Caleb Alloway), a rookie lawyer retained to defend Babe while at the same time harbouring a grudge of his own against her victim. How they all negotiate their various travails is played out in the unmistakeable cadences and archaic vocabulary of the Deep South. The often vexed affection between them is both the furious fuel and glue of their existence.
Crimes of the Heart is a cock-eyed tragi-comedy that portrays the social and spiritual poverty of the sisters’ lives in a state that was and is the poorest and most backward in the USA – yet which is culturally crazily rich and fascinating to outsiders. There is nothing like the Deep South and Southern Gothic for a beguiling night in the theatre and this production delivers.
The company of six delivers exceptional performances with the sisters playing off each other with uncommon nuance and understanding. The comedy is as tart as Lenny’s lemonade and even more bittersweet in the celebrated scene where they explode in laughter over their granddad’s coma (you have to be there, it is hilarious).
And among the emotional twists and turns, Renae Small succeeds in making Babe’s suicide attempt not only piteous but famously comical when she answers her sister’s plea as to why she did it with an exasperated, “I was having a bad day.”
Set and costume designer Jonathan Hindmarsh and lighting designer Alexander Berlage have delivered a painstakingly detailed 70s suburban kitchen where the ordinary comforts and morning sun glowing through the curtains never quite dissipate the ghosts and fears.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the Henley classic – on stage or screen– it’s likely you won’t have seen it in years and this production will be a very entertaining surprise. Recommended.